Sibling Rivalry

My sister has an allotment.

I am so jealous. Of all the romantic ideals a life in Britain conjures an allotment is the most seductive. I don’t know why except that we always think we would do better/ be better if we had this or that, grass is greener etc.

I remember a conversation with a friend in uni in which we agreed that we would be more committed students if we were surrounded by romantic stone buildings instead of Brutalist concrete. Our School of Arts was housed in the former dental building and we were as far from the beautiful gardens our campus contained as could be. Luckily I was never given the opportunity to test this theory and managed to get my degree (eventually) despite the uninspiring buildings. I have also since learned to value the of privilege being admitted onto campus when so many are not.

And yet what is life without envy.

I’m sure her plot is no bigger than my back garden and so far allotmenteering has mostly been collecting glass and other rubbish that has been dumped in it by previous tenants. But now the northern hemisphere is awakening and the romance of gardening can begin, assisted by a myriad of television programmes, seed varieties and inspirational gardens to visit.

She was only halfheartedly interested in gardening before, and when she got her allotment I tried to damp down my overwhelming enthusiasm in case it put her off but now she is as bugged as I am. She will inevitably surpass me in dedication and outcomes but it is nice to have a running mate albeit on the other side of the world. She will be planting potatoes when I should be harvesting them and harvesting them when I must remember to get them in the ground. We can have cosy competitions on the size of our carrots and discuss Monty Don’s latest gardening book. She will probably remind me about all the things I should be grateful for, like the weather and onsite facilities, while I remind her of the value of onsite community and experience.

We all have our own patch of ground, metaphorical and not, how we grow it is up to us.


New Year! New me?

I suspect that the origin of New Years resolutions was someone lifting their pounding head up and declaring ‘I am never drinking again’. No doubt met with groans of agreement from similarly afflicted friends.

We all know how long that one lasts.

Our  annual holiday of resolving to be a better, more productive person is perfect for procrastinators and perfectionists. (I fall into both of these categories) It’s a specific point to start, which if missed means that you may as well wait until it comes around again, and a metaphorical clean slate, on which last years failures disappear like swiping back on our etch-a-sketch.

I have for the last three years sat down and written a gratitude list and a goal list. I’m grateful for my family, my job etc. And while I am grateful for my family I haven’t sat down and thought about why. And I don’t think just writing a list causes us to feel the gratitude that is supposed to be so good for our mental health.

Do New Years Resolutions help us? or do they just absolve us throughout the year until our disappointment that we haven’t achieved our goals can be cushioned by champagne and optimism for the next years list.

Perhaps we should focus more of our energy on what we wish to leave behind, letting go of things that weigh us down and facing up to the things that hold us back. Instead of thinking about it as a clean slate, because lets face it unless you go into FBI protection you will never get one, maybe New Year should be stepping back from the canvas to get perspective.

So many of our goals or  ambitions in life are quite arbitrary, inherited from the world around us while holding little meaning to us personally. I don’t think anyone actually thinks about their weight unless it’s noticeably difficult to heave themselves off their couch and if we had the time we would have lived our lives to the fullest last year. I’m not even sure what amount ‘the fullest’ constitutes.

So hang the resolutions to be a better person and do the things I ought to do. This year my resolutions are to do the things I want to do. I’m taking up ballet and pottery and learning about wine.


Off with winter coats and scarves.
Lungs expand to fill
With smells that drift in through openflung windows.

Winter is a heavy time but
Spring is light.

Flowers burst into bloom,
Beetles set forth
And green shoots push up through red earth.

Winter is time for sleep but
Spring is work

Trees put out their fresh, clean leaves.

Not me.

I stopped to watch a thrush dance.
Strutting about,
Wings out
Like a cape behind him.

And the bees motoring back and forth
Pockets stuffed with pollen
A column of ants went across my path.

I followed the trail of bread crumbs.

Buckets of soapy water grow cold
While I watch the world at work around me

My Reality TV show

Having spent most of the week in bed with flu watching episodes of Restoration House and Garden Rescue the voice in my head has turned into a voice over by a British television presenter. Along with all of the hyperbolising questions used to up the tension and make building and gardening into spectator sorts.

‘We here today in the home of scatterbrained amateur gardener  Jem as she attempts to transform her garden from drab to fab (it’s a favourite catch phrase) and make this into the garden of her dreams. But has she taken on more than she can handle, are her plans just a little unrealistic and can she stay focussed long enough to get anything done?’

I can’t stop narrating everything I do. ‘I’m just sowing some Dianthus seeds in these little pots.’ When I walk around my garden now I am narrating my plans in my head. Then they are interrupted by the faintly reprimanding voice over again, ‘Jem really needs to get moving on her plans or she risks falling behind on her deadline,’ or ‘Jem is in danger of getting carried away by new ideas while she’s yet to complete any of her projects. Is this going to turn into another garden disaster?’

And then I reply in the candid interview style of the cut to home owner that it all feels overwhelming and I don’t think I’m getting anywhere.

I think it might be good to have a television crew following me around. I think an audience would give me the buzz to get things done and I could really indulge in my self pitying moments when things don’t work out. In the meantime I want to punch British voice over in the face.


Sowing seeds

This weekend I’ve been sowing my veg seeds. I went a little overboard on the Livingseeds website, this must be what victorian gardeners felt like with catalogues. Until a few years ago you could only get one or two varieties of standard vegetables in South Africa

Times have changed. I have four different types of tomatoes. I don’t even like tomatoes! This will be a consolation if I kill them.

Livingseeds has hundreds of different varieties of heirloom and open pollinated seeds. It’s so easy just to click ‘Add to basket’ and fantasize about devotedly raising healthy strong seedlings with elegant ease which give you bountiful harvests while you wait for your future food to be delivered. They also encourage you to save your seed for the next season which only adds to the pressure/level of fantasy involved but they give a lot of advice on how to do it. I’m pretty sure it’s as good as anything you can get overseas and I only wish they did flowers as well.

Instead of seed trays I’ve used self-watering pots made from plastic bottles. This seemed like a really good idea as the biggest reason for early crop failure in my garden is periodic drought when I forget to water them.

The pots are very simple to make. Cut the top third off a plastic bottle, make a hole in the top and thread a strip of cloth through. Flip it upside down, fill it with seedling mix and you have your planting pot. Fill the bottom of the bottle with water and stand the pot in that so that the bottom of the cloth is in the water. The cloth should then act as a wick taking water to the soil and making sure it doesn’t dry out.

That is the theory. It has been three days now and the top is definitely not as damp as it was. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t planted all my seeds in one pot.

Spring and all that goes with it

Spring is officially here, in calendar as well as weather, and all I want is to sit in the garden and wait for the sweet peas to open. My grandmother had her hundreth birthday a few weeks ago and I planted them everywhere in the hope they would be in full bloom for our birthday picnic. If I had kept a garden journal last year I would have known that sweet peas won’t flower here before September.

I rushed to the instant bedding nursary and got two trays of primulas 50% off because they were in full flower and about to go over. They looked lovely and the sweet peas are saved for me.

I’m pleased to say that despite drifting off my blog I’ve been keeping my garden journal faithfully, with the exception of a few weeks here and there, and have had lots to write in it. There is so much to share but that will have to keep for another day.

For now let me just say that if this is the start of the gardening year I’m armed with renewed good intentions and barrowloads of enthusiasm. Vegetable seeds have arried, I have trees to plant for arbour week and I made dinner today with my own veg. An apple nut salad with lettuce and radishes straight out the beds; a spring veg risotto with mint snipped just outside the kitchen door; and a chickpea stew with swiss chard as fresh as you can get it.

It’s not even half the meal, still it feels marvelously self-sufficient.

To spring, and a great gardening year to come!

Waiting for things to grow.

I am not a patient gardener although I think gardening can teach us patience. If things don’t happen quickly enough I tend to lose focus and get on with something else. It’s a trait I inherited from my mother for whom the rice could never cook quickly enough. My childhood was filled with the smell of burning rice while my mother wandered back to her studio.

After the initial excitement of seedlings comming up, appearing like magic through the soil and putting out their first leaves, now is the boring bit of waiting, waiting, waiting and in the mean time watering. It would be fine if we didn’t need to water and tend, if we could come back in 3 months and pick all the vegetables. Unfortunately most garden jobs and plants, require constance and I try to be the gardener they need. I still harbour a special affection for the plants that do it without me. The annuals that reseed themselves, the bulbs that come back every spring even though I’d forgotten they were there, I feel like those plants really get me.

Last Christmas I lifted and divided a clump of spider lily bulbs. Of course I accidentally stuck my fork through a couple so I decided to use them to propagate. Reading the instructions in my RHS guide it promised that
in a year I would have new little bulbs.hdr And I thought ‘goodess a year is a long way off.’ SInce the bulbs were damaged there was nothing else i could do with them so I chopped them up and sealed them in a bag of vermiculite.

As the saying goes ‘don’t put off a goal because of the time it will take to complete it. The time will pass anyway’. And so it has.

Today I pulled out the bag and planted each little spider-lily plant with it’s own furry roots and smooth shoot. I have twenty plants in large yoghut pots and grow bags. No doubt it will be another year before they grow up and flower but the time will pass with or without my plants so I may as well use it.

Keeping record

This week we have had rain. Finally after a scorching heatwave it rained on Friday solidly all afternoon. Since I had put up my rainguage on Thursday evening (my colleagues think I’m nuts for my obsessive folowing of weather predictions) I was able to accurately measure 29 mm. On Saturday we got a follow up 6 mm. When I went out in the evening to check it I heard my neighbours automatic sprinkers going on. Technically they’re allowed since restictions only prohibit watering gardens between 6 am and 6 pm – what a bunch of slug buckets.

I came across a gardening journal I kept for a week in 2011 and it was facinating. I wish I’d kept it for longer so I’ve started another and the first thing I did  was write ‘some Serious gardening goals – keep the journal going all year.’ I underlined ‘serious’ so that when I find it in five years time with only the first week’s entries written out I’ll know how serious I was.

My other goals are

  • a wildlife pond (last attempt a disaster)
  • harvest something everyweek from my veg garden from March
  • reclaim unused spaces and provide seating areas, specifically (its important when setting goals to be specific) the Rose Garden, the North Corner and the Avenue.

I like giving grand names to all the little bits of my garden especially the ones that look as though the house is abandoned. The Rose Garden, for instance, is a bit of my drive way that I dug up after a very inspirational rose garden tour. I didn’t get very far with it, roses are expensive and blah blah insert excuses here; anyway it looks dreadful. It’s also right at the front door so you can’t miss it inless you choose not to go out of the house. Since I can’t do that I’m going to have to make it into a fabulous garden.

I have a lot more goals but I thought I should only write down a few and focus on those. Like having too many tabs open on your computer I suspect too many things to focus on slows down your performance. If you’re naturally a too many tabs open kind of person then you have to focus on cutting down your focusses which of course is just one more thing to focus on.

On a positive note, even if it all goes to pot now and I get distracted by whatever it is that usually distracts me, the veg garden I planted out in the weeks around the world spinning from 2015 to 2016 looks pretty awesome and the potatoes are doing marvelously. For some reason potatoes seem to be my most dependable crop and if nothing else we’ll get a good lot of them.


New Year, New Start

e. e. cummings wrote, ‘in time’s a noble mercy of proprtion/ with generosities beyond believing’. One of these generosities is the New Year. Every year is another chance to start over, a renewal of hopes, dreams, good intentions and a reminder that life is a work in progress.

Gardens too are very forgiving in this way. Very few of our disasters will be noticable in a few years. You can plant over, redesign, take grass out, put grass back; even trees can be moved, although of course this should be avoided if possible. It is better to plonk something enthusiastcally in the wrong place and have to move it in the middle of summer than to sit around trying to decide until the poor thing expires in it’s pot. I’ve definitely killed more plants the latter way.

There may be gardeners who plan everything meticulously with beautiful water-coloured drawings (or computer generated 3D reditions) showing what it will look like and where each tree, shrub and annual will go. Some gardeners probably make it up as the go along. I suspect most of us are a combination of the two. I’m about half and half, I plan out for a bit and then think ‘What the hell, better get going or I’ll never start.’ This goes against all advice but I firmly believe it’s better to garden badly than not to garden at all.

And of course it’s better to attempt to revive your blog and end up fizzling out in May than to give it up entirely. Especially if your mum likes to sigh sometimes and say, ‘I wish you’d go back to your blog’.

So whatever type of gardener you are, or if gardening is not your thing but you want to paint, write, build  eco-pods, learn piano or take up cricket, just get out there and do it. Don’t worry that you might not stick to it, if you don’t you can try again next year. In the meantime here’s some good life advice from someone who isn’t me and I hope to still be around next year.


Sowing Seeds

ippLast year was disastrous in terms of vegetable seed sowing. I managed to raise a couple of courgette plants a few french beans and four cucumbers which shriveled up and died. I think my grand total harvest was three beans and a courgette. The problem was a combination of my method and my dedication. Everything just got lost in the dust and I lost heart. I should have waited for the rains to plant them out because my enthusiasm couldn’t sustain watering them daily so most of them had died by the time the rains cameipp. Those that hadn’t were sufficiently weakened to be suffocated by the forest of weeds which then sprung up.

This year everything is different. Although it’s slow progress I am getting things done and I’m determined to stick to my resolutions.

I have been planting the seedlings in my paper pots. It’s such a simple way of doing it, as they’ll ippjust degrade into the soil when I plant them. I have even planted some carrots in them as the ones I sowed straight into the beds got eaten by chickens. These were sown on August 22, I even labeled them, so far the peas and carrots have come up as well as the pumpkin seeds I saved from one I bought at the Bryanston Organic Market. The only downside is they don’t stand up so well to an excited puppy stepping on them.